When the decade of the 1960s came to an end, many of the hippies who had lived in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district were forced by rising real estate costs to moved down the coast to the town of Santa Cruz. There, they married and had children, they bought cars and homes and they enrolled their kids in school. The hippies became…yuppies…young, urban professionals.
But people who work in the Santa Cruz school districts report one interesting hold-over of the hippie culture. Alongside children like Susan and Matthew, children named “Time Warp”, “Spring Fever,” “Moonbeam,” “Earth Love” and “Precious Promise” all ended up as students in public school.
That’s when the kindergarten teachers in Santa Cruz first met Fruit Stand. Every fall, according to tradition, parents bravely apply name tags to their children, kiss them good-bye and send them off to school on the bus. So it was for Fruit Stand. The teachers thought the boy’s name was odd, but they tried to make the best of it.
“Would you like to play with the blocks, Fruit Stand?” they offered. And later, “Fruit Stand, how about a snack?” He accepted hesitantly. After awhile, his name didn’t seem much stranger than Heather’s or Sun Ray’s.
At the end of the day, the teachers led the children out to the buses. “Fruit Stand, do you know which one is your bus?”
He didn’t answer. That wasn’t strange. He hadn’t really answered them all day. Lots of children are shy on the first day of school. It didn’t matter. The teachers had instructed the parents to write the names of their children’s bus stops on the reverse side of their name tags. The teacher simply turned over the tag. There, neatly printed, was the word “Anthony.”
Names are important. They identify someone. They are truth. They are the typically the first thing we learn about someone in understanding their identity. And frankly, we can’t really enter into a relationship with someone without really knowing who they are; what is true, and what is false.
The quest to understand what is true and what is false in our world is one to which people have dedicated their entire lives. And there are things that we can learn from those who seek the truth.
For example, art experts determine the authenticity of a painting or sculpture, not by studying the forgeries. No, instead they become experts in the artist’s original art works. They look for unique characteristics or quirks held by the artist that give away his or her identity.
It could be the type of bristle preferred in a brush, or the location from which a marble slab was quarried. It could even be something as subtle as the depth of the paint, or the lightness of the chisel. All these things work together to portray the artist…as much as the artist was working to portray his or her subject.
Another example: Secret Service agents, sworn to guard the integrity of our nation’s currency, identify counterfeits not by studying the forgeries, but by studying authentic bills. The ink…the paper…the way it folds…the way it feels…the lines…the agent gets to know it so well, that when presented with a counterfeit, it is easy to spot.
The life lesson is this: If you know what’s true, that which is not true is easy to identify. The same is true of our faith. What is true? What is false?
We have to be honest: throughout history there has been confusion whenever humans have tried to interpret God’s will. What is true, and what is not? And, humans have sometimes made mistakes; mistakes that have led to things like:
- The Crusades, which brought war to the middle east over a 200-year period
- Mistakes like cult activity that costs people their families and sometimes their lives
- And self-proclaimed prophets…who manipulate people for greed, or power
What is true, and what is false? In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that these examples were not within the will of God.
We wrestle with these questions all of the time, even when we don’t realize it. And like the teachers did with Anthony, I believe that we sometimes misunderstand God’s identity.
The National Study of Youth and Religion, completed a few years ago, was the largest single study of the faith of young people and families ever conducted in our country. The results are kind of startling:
A few of the highlights:
- Contrary to popular opinion, young people are not anti-religion. Quite the opposite: Young people appreciate religious tradition.
- The faith of young people mirrors the faith of their parents, or their primary faith mentors. In other words: what the parent believes, the kids generally believe. And the idea that young people wander spiritually, exploring to find their own faith, is generally not true.
- Young people of faith generally do better in school… academically and socially…and participate in “at-risk” behavior at a noticeably lower rate than young people who do not participate in a faith community.
That’s the good news. Where things get a bit sketchy is when young people are asked to describe or articulate their faith.
Here’s the thing: They can’t. Generally speaking, they really can’t articulate what they believe in. The studies showed that when asked to describe the God in which they believe, they generally come up with 3 basic ideas:
- First, there is a God out there…somewhere…distant… who is largely uninvolved…
- Second, God wants us to be good to others.
- And third, God exists to solve our problems.
The sociologists who ran this study have titled this kind of faith “moralistic, therapeutic deism. Deism, in that people generally believe there is a God…Moralistic, in that God wants us to be good to others, and therapeutic, in that people believe God is like some kind of “cosmic vending machine,” and should make our lives better or easier.
Now at first glance, this might now sound so bad. After all, at least they believe that there is a God. But when you dig in deeper, you discover the problem. The God of moralistic, therapeutic deism has no name. Who is this God? What is this God about? How is this God in relationship with creation? How does this God call for us to respond to the gift of grace we are given? How do we participate in this God’s mission in the world? Well we can’t; because this God doesn’t have a mission. And we cannot know…we cannot be in a relationship with this God.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a product of the erosion of the core beliefs of Christianity. And what the study determined was that this experience is not limited to young people. The studies have shown that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is growing as the primary belief system of young people because it is growing as the primary belief system of adults in our society.
People believe there is a God, but they cannot describe God, and they certainly don’t know God.
Now, while Moralistic Therapeutic Deism can feel safe, comfortable and easy, Jesus is quite clear that it is not truth. No, Jesus goes on to tell us that to be a Christian is to be someone who can receive and then name truth for a broken world.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus comes clean with his disciples about who he really is.
He flips his proverbial nametag over, and says: “I am the way…the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me…I am the way.”
He calms their nerves and to makes them promises. He reassures them that he is with them, and that through him, the journey will be complete. He says that “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me…” and he says that “I go to prepare a place for you…” And he makes promises: Whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing, and more….” And he goes on to promise his presence, and his grace. In these words, Jesus gives his disciples a gift…he gives them these promises to cling to, so that when he was no longer physically walking alongside them, and the going got tough, they would have something to hang on to.
My friends, let’s be honest. Times are kind of tough right now. There is fear, anxiety and uncertainty. We all feel it. But our Gospel story today speaks into that. It speaks hope…and promise.
You cannot be in a relationship with someone that you do not know. It’s that simple. And Jesus is saying to each one of you today, “whether you know it or not, I am in a relationship with you. I know you. And for you, I am the resurrection and the life…for you, I am the resurrection and the life…for you…” Our Gospel today shows us the authentic Jesus, and that then makes it easier for us to spot the counterfeits.
In fact, today’s Gospel: It is the antidote to moralistic therapeutic deism. And Jesus asks us to cling to him and to speak his name boldly. Our faith is not in some nebulous, warm and fuzzy, feel-good, unnamed God who just asks us to be nice to everyone. Our faith is in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the resurrection, the truth and the life. And being able to name that to a world that is broken is…well, it’s why we are here.
In your baptism, Jesus promised to know your name. And God’s Holy Spirit began to work in your lives. And in our Gospel, Jesus tells us who he is and what that means. He tells us to use his name. He tells us that when we call on Him by name, he will be there.
And he says “do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Even in these complicated, difficult, anxiety producing, pandemic days, do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not let your sense of Jesus’ identity erode. He is neither distant nor uninterested.
There is truth. And that truth has a name. That truth brings hope and peace. It brings the promise of the resurrection. That truth walks with you wherever you go. That truth brings the gifts of eternal life and of forgiveness of sin. That truth is for you.
The truth is named Jesus.
Wherever you are, say it with me: “The truth is named Jesus.”
Thanks be to God for that.